Arcadi on Arcadi

February 19th, 2016 by

The standard Sunday morning Eucharist liturgy for the Anglican Church in North America begins with the priest saying, “Blessed be God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Then the congregation responds, “And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen.” Similarly, the Orthodox liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom begin with the priest saying, “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages,” the people responding with a hearty, “Amen.” What is the meaning of these utterances? What does it mean to bless God in this instance? How is this an instance of prayer? These are the questions I attempted to answer in last week’s seminar using a speech act theoretic approach.

Now, speech act theory is actually a really simple concept, the gist of which is that we speak (or write, or sing, or any kind of attempt at communication) we are doing more than just conveying propositional content. The idea used to be in philosophy of language that a sentence was all about some proposition that was either true or false, and the goal of the philosopher was simply to figure out the conditions under which that proposition was true or false. But, guess what, that doesn’t really work for some, maybe most sentences. Like, what about the sentence, “Ouch!” Is that true or false? Or what about the sentence, to use a Trumpism, “You’re fired!” there seems to be a lot more going on there than just conveying a proposition. Rather, when someone says, “Ouch!” they likely perform the action of expressing, perhaps expressing pain. When Trump, in his former career, said, “You’re fired!” he too performed an action, specifically, he fired someone. This utterance brought about a change in the world, a change in the fired person’s employment status, a change in the company structure, etc. “You’re fired!” doesn’t just communicate some proposition, it does something, or more specifically, Trump does something using the utterance. That’s the basis of speech act theory, the project then becomes trying to think about what actions speakers perform with the sentences they utter.

So, what actions could be performed when the minister and the people bless God as the opening to the liturgy? I pursued four options utilizing the reflections of Nicholas Wolterstorff in his recent The God we worship: an exploration of liturgical theology and Alexander Schmemann in his magisterial The Eucharist. I think these four options have some plausibility to them, but I then developed a line of my own. One option Wolterstorff suggests is to see this opening utterance as an instance of the speakers expressing praise. This could be tied in with his understanding of worship as expressing awe of God. So perhaps the opening blessing is simply an instance in the liturgy to praise God. Another option Wolterstorff proffered is to see the opening blessing as being in the “optative” mood. As Wolterstorff understands it this is also an expression, but more like the expressing of the desire that God’s kingdom flourish. Another option Wolterstorff puts forth, and one in some way echoed by Schmemann, is to see the opening blessing as a simple acknowledgement of fact. Perhaps one simply acknowledges the state of affairs that God’s kingdom is blessed, like a simple declarative statement. Or, and this is the line Schmemann pursues, perhaps in the opening blessing one acknowledges that God and God’s kingdom are the highest value of the speakers. However, all of these options felt a bit thin to me. There just seems like there is more going on in the opening of the liturgy than mere expressions of feelings or acknowledgement of some fact.

An option I pursued as being a potentially helpful way of thinking about the opening blessing is to see it as a pledge of allegiance. The action here is something like vowing or committing or pledging to participate in God’s kingdom. The speech act category that an action of this instance would fall under would be the same category as promises. In vows or promises or pledges one verbally places on oneself certain obligations to perform future actions. I suggest that the opening blessing can be understood as an instance of pledging allegiance to God’s kingdom and thereby pledging to participate in God’s kingdom. This seems a very fitting action to perform as the opening act of the liturgy wherein one goes on to do just those sorts of things that are participating in God’s kingdom (like hearing Scripture read and preached, confessing sins, praying, offering money to the poor, participating in the Lord’s Supper, joining in fellowship with other participants in God’s kingdom, etc.).

I do not think this is the only way of understanding the opening blessing, and much of our conversation after the presentation focused on the way that utterances can serve different purposes in different contexts. But I do think the “pledge of allegiance” interpretation of the opening blessing is one attractive and fitting interpretation that I want to continue to think more about.

James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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